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EDUCATION SPECIAL - BATTLE FOR HEARTS AND MINDS

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It is tough to know which will win out in the new children's structures - old rivalries or a new professionalism? B...
It is tough to know which will win out in the new children's structures - old rivalries or a new professionalism? But some councils are already making progress, says Jon Hanlon

Our recent survey on the children's green paper (LGC, 24 October) showed many senior local government managers have reservations about the proposed merging of education and social services.

One social services director described education and social services as 'totally different cultures' and added: 'They [education] don't want some of our responsibilities and schools would have doubts about the credibility of social care directors.' Another said 'essential skills would be lost on both sides'.

But for some councils the proposals are already a reality and the old social services and education directorates no longer exist. The phrase 'joined-up government' could have been invented for them.

There has been much discussion about the merging of education and social services at Brighton & Hove City Council. The cornerstone of the recent children's green paper is increasing local political responsibility for children's services as well as beefing up the co-ordination of these services. In other words, by 2006 councils will be expected to split up social services into adult and child provision and spirit the children's social services away to a new super department which will include education. Each council must appoint a children's director with the statutory responsibilities of the chief education officer and the social services director.

Pioneering this strategic approach is Brighton & Hove City Council. Its experience is likely to be watched closely by other councils anxious about the prospect of restructuring two of their most heavyweight services.

Since April 2002, the council has been operating a hybrid service - children, families and schools. All three components - children's services, social services and education - have equal standing and are overseen by one director, with four assistant direct ors.

Another of the green paper's recommendations is for the appointment of a councillor to take political responsibility for children's services. At Brighton & Hove Pat Hawkes (Lab) occupies this role.

She says: 'We are already doing lots of the things the green paper prescribes. We have appointed a children's commissioner to try and prevent some of the more serious failings other councils have experienced and we also have a children's trust.'

Four family centres aimed at taking children's services out of council offices and into the community have already been set up. Here, teachers, social workers and specialist education and health staff co-ordinate their activity at ground level, cementing Brighton's reputation as the government's flagship council in these issues - one of the centres was even used by the BBC as the location for their televised report on the green paper.

Brighton & Hove is also one of the first councils to test out the government's plan for 'extended' schools. Recently, children's minister Margaret Hodge said every council education team in the country should run at least one extended school by 2006.

These schools provide a range of services, including childcare, health and social care, adult learning, family support, art, access to IT and sport. Acting as one-stop centres, extended schools are intended to cater for the needs of both children and their families.

The schools will form a central part of the children's trusts. But key for councils is their standing as commissioning agents. Councils will need to decide the budget and negotiate with the primary care trust.

Ms Hawkes says: 'We are all coming together to ensure children don't fall between agencies. It will reassure parents who are traditionally terrified of social workers. The climate should be more friendly and people will feel more able to go to these centres if, for example, they have a child who won't go to school.

'In the past social services were very hostile to the idea of their empire being br oken up, but I think most staff now realise it's time we broke down these ridiculous professional barriers.'

Tameside MBC is another council ahead of the children's green paper. It has already made significant strides towards meeting the government's plans on children's services.

Colin McKinless, the council's social services director, says: '18 months ago we predicted that this would be the government's direction of travel so we began to reposition our children's and adults services into separate entities.'

The foundations have been laid with the creation of heads of service for adults, children and another department, called strategy and support.

Mr McKinless says: 'Though we haven't yet separated the functions, the management of services has been separated which we are hoping will ease the transition period.'

For the majority of policy makers, the concept of better team-working between all agencies which have an input into children's services is wise and perhaps overdue, but Mr McKinless says methodology will determine whether a good idea translates into practice.

A new top job, potentially controlling more than half a council's budget, is set to be created as a result of the proposal in the government's children's green paper.

It requires all relevant councils to create a director of children's services. This post would oversee both education and child social services.

While the main public debate is how this could improve matters for vulnerable children, there are already signs of confusion over which profession is likely to take the majority of these posts. It seems likely 'what will this mean for my job' will be the key question for those who work in either service.

Privately, the arguments over the new structures are beginning to simmer. Professional rivalries already appear to have been re-ignited with education

specialists pointing to their generally better track record in the comprehensive performance assessments, while socialservices figures insist that education staff largely transmit money to schools rather than control budgets.

Combining education and children's social services under one director has attracted criticism that ministers are imposing a one-size-fits-all approach on councils.

Many argue that the performance of new directors will be key if staff are to offer unconditional support for the proposals in the green paper. Shaking free from the silo mentality will require people who can understand both education and social services cultures equally.

Mr McKinless says: 'Whether structural change is the answer is something of a moot point among councils. What is needed is a different type of leadership and culture and it needs to be bottom-up as well as top-down. For this to work staff must want to do things differently rather than remain barricaded behind their professional barriers.'

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